With T-Mobile's foray into contract free, finding a good budget phone is more important than ever. You still have the option of paying between $0 and $200 and financing over two years, but the payments along with service costs would may your T-Mobile bill look like as high as one from any of the other big four carriers. So in order the really take advantage of T-Mobiles low cost no contract plans, we're going to want a solid phone for under $200. So far I've found two solid contendors. The $150 Nokia Lumia 521 and $199 LG Optimus L9. Lets see how they stack up.
Nokia Lumia 521
At $150($129 at Walmart if you can find it), Nokia has packed a lot of phone into a low cost package. You get a dual core 1Ghz CPU behind a 4" screen powered by Windows Phone 8. Nokia has a reputation for solid build quality even on their budget phones and the Lumia 521 is no exception. While you're not going to mistake it for an iPhone or HTC One, the Lumia 521s feel a lot more sturdy than the cheap Chinese smart phones you'll often find in this price range. The only red flag on the Lumia 521 is the 512MB of RAM, which can keep some applications off the phone and might make it age more quickly that other current Windows Phones.
LG Optimus L9
Officially a prepaid phone, you'll find the Optimus L9 at around $199 at most retailers and maybe even cheaper online. The specs are much the same as the Lumia 521 except for a slightly larger 4.5" screen and 1GB of RAM. Given the far less restricted environment Android apps get to play in, the 1GB of RAM probably serves the Optimus L9 as well as 512MB does the Lumia 521. While most models on the shelves are probably still running Android 4.0, LG has released an update to 4.1 Jellybean. Now it's time to compare these two.
Suffice to say, neither of these phones are going to win any awards. At resolutions of 800x480 for the 4" Lumia and 950x540 for the 4.5 Optimus, the pixel depth is in the same neighborhood for both phones. Colors and viewing angle were also equally unremarkable. I've seen worse screens. Unless you really need an HD screen on your phone, there's nothing poor enough about either screen to not buy these phones, but no one is going to buy them for the screen quality either.
Winner: Tie (Maybe a slight edge to the Optimus for the larger screen)
I could write pages comparing Windows Mobile to Android, but that choice is going to come down to personal preference. I find a lot I like about both operating systems, but on the Lumia I was let down by the Windows Phone software ecosystem. While there are some favorites like Facebook and Twitter, when it comes to a lot of smart phone apps, Windows Phone is on the outside looking in. For services like Instagram or even YouTube you might find an app that was written by a third party to work with them, but even those often lag behind their native counter parts on Android and iOS. Windows Phone is excellent if you want a phone for email, Facebook and occasional web browsing, but beyond the basics it may leave you wanting.
The Optimus L9 comes with Android 4.0/4.1 with LG's Optimus overlay. I don't really care for any of these, but at least LG's version is rather unobtrusive. The look and feel is reminiscent of Samsung's TouchWiz. Not a bad copy, but lacks some of Samsung's bells and whistles.
Overall both phones are quick and snappy and I haven't noticed much lag at all. There is a big of a bloat problem on both. The Lumia comes preinstalled with some superfluous T-Mobile and Nokia applications while the Optimus comes with T-Moble and LG applications. The Optimus comes with a bit more bloat, but the good news is that nearly all of it can be uninstalled or disabled on both phones.
Winner: I'm picking the Optimus L9, but that's largely a judgment of the Android ecosystem over Windows Phone
Finally we come to an area where these two aren't evenly matched. Despite having a smaller 1430 mAh battery to the 2150mAH battery in the Optimus, the Lumia has had far better battery life. I didn't do any scientific testing, just used both as daily drivers doing my normal smart phone use. After 8 hours of normal usage the Lumia is still around 70% battery life with the Optimus as low as 30%. Both phones will probably get you through a work day, but the Optimus is going to need a charge before you go out for the evening.
Winner: Lumia 521
I'll admit my mistake right away that I didn't take any controlled camera comparison shots and now I don't have both phones with me, so you'll have to take my work for it. Both phones sport a 5 megapixel rear shooter and I really can't tell a difference between the two. The Optimus does hold an advantage in low light due to actually having and LED flash that the Lumia lacks. The Optimus can also record 1080p video while the Lumia is restricted to 720p. The final advantage for the Optimus is the VGA front facing camera. It's not great but it's better than nothing, which is what the Lumia has.
Winner: Optimus L9
One area where the Lumia 521 stands out from the budget competition is built in storage. Of the 8GB of flash storage the Lumia packs, roughly 5GB is user accessible. As long as you don't need to carry around your music collection, it's probably enough for most users. Of the 4GB the Optimus L9 carries, around 1.8GB is available to the user. A step up from super budget phones, but not a whole lot of wiggle room either. The good news is that in this day of disappear microSD slots, both phones are expandable via microSD. The Lumia is compatible with 64GB cards while the Optimus has to stop at 32GB.
Winner: Lumia 521
These are a two very well matched smart phones and it's going to come down to some sacrifices and choices to decide which one to get. You can either go for the more robust Android ecosystem at the cost of battery life or if you need the battery life, you'll have to settle for a more basic and limited smart phone experience. Personally I've decided to keep the Optimus L9 and send the Lumia 521 packing. I just can't put up with the limitations of Windows Phone long term